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Future-proofing our urban landscape


Words by Sophie Wright

Photos by Marie Wanders

Since his first job in a greenhouse at age 12, Ton van Oostwaard has been thinking about nature. Today, he holds positions in three municipalities and runs his own organisation MyEarth. He believes it’s time to “future-proof” our landscape, and has set out to transform Amsterdam’s Defense Line (a 135km ring around the city originally built for protection against invaders in the late 18th century) into a huge national park. His mission is to transform the landscape once again, this time to deal with the modern threat of climate change.

It was nine years ago that van Oostwaard felt an urgent need to get actively engaged with the battle against climate change after listening an Al Gore speech on the radio whilst on holiday. He began to think of possible solutions for air pollution, triggered by experiencing the negative impact of spending three hours stuck in solid traffic. Since then he has been on a journey towards change, fuelled by a sense of responsibility and a belief in actively innovating nature. From small-scale experiments in the corner of a greenhouse to sharing his ideas with the global community on TEDxAmsterdam and collaborating with numerous green organisations and governmental bodies, one man’s vision is blossoming into a reality.

Van Oostwaard’s initial idea was rooted in the air-clearing powers of the hairy plant. It’s no big secret that plants can help reduce carbon dioxide through photosynthesis, thus having a positive impact on air quality. However, ‘hairier’ plants are particularly adept at absorbing pollution particles as the tiny hairs act like filters. In a series of greenhouse tests, he found that the honeysuckle was most effective. In collaboration with a team of growers from his company MyEarth, he began to question how he could “supercharge” these plants in preparation for their potential function as natural air purifiers. As amino acids help human hair grow, they decided to use it to create a custom fertiliser, mixed with leaves and trimmings from the streets of the city. After several tests, the plants grew three times faster with longer and denser hairs. The result was the ‘Green Junkie’: a climate-adaptive form of honeysuckle ‘addicted’ to carbon dioxide.

Following his initial experiments, van Oostwaard’s idea was selected by the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions (AMS) as part of their challenge to improve city life. Since January 2016, the Green Junkie has been taken out of the lab and into the streets. Testing the plant in the controlled environment of the wind tunnel, the team is currently measuring the concrete impact that the Green Junkie has on the air quality of heavily polluted urban settings with the help of the AMS and professionals from Wageningen University.

Describing them as “plants from the future”, the Green Junkies are an integral part of van Oostwaard’s bigger plan to “future-proof” Amsterdam and its environs with the giant G-shaped ring, De Stelling 2.0. The city is already known for its innovation, but van Oostwaard’s vision is to galvanise the region around it, setting an example for other urban areas all over the world – and the key, and main challenge, to realising the project is collaboration. “The Amsterdam Metropolitan Area is made up of 32 governments. While Amsterdam counts around 800,000 inhabitants the Metropolitan Area counts 2.5 million people,” he says. “These 32 municipalities within the two provinces can help.” At this point, five are already on board.

Amsterdam will be the first metropolitan area with good air.

The natural area that makes up the UNESCO World Heritage site, the Defense Line of Amsterdam or De Stelling, covers 25,000 hectares. Van Oostwaard’s plans for the new green climate belt, De Stelling 2.0, have multiple knock on positive effects. In addition to greening the area, improving biodiversity and absorbing large amounts of air pollution with climate-adaptive vegetation, the park will also play an important social role, giving residents a green space for healthy living, stimulating tourism and providing employment.

Though the project is ambitious and expensive, van Oostwaard explains that the way it functions is sustainable and as a “circular project”, it pays for itself. Through the growth of the plants, van Oostwaard says that over 640,000 tonnes of biomass will be produced which is enough energy to heat every house in Amsterdam every year. The greenhouses where the plants are grown also provide employment opportunities to people with a social return status.   

The park will be featured at the 7th edition of the international horticultural exhibition the Floriade which will take place in Almere in 2022. The theme of the upcoming event is Growing Green Cities, and will be centered on how to help urban areas respond to the changing face of the planet. Van Oostwaard’s project has already been met with enthusiasm from government officials from Barcelona, Tangiers, Hamburg and Belgium. De Stelling 2.0 is scheduled to be finished by 2025, just in time for Amsterdam’s birthday, and celebrating 750 years of innovation. He says, “Amsterdam will be the first metropolitan area with good air. We have already done many innovative things. But we must wake up and create balance, and show the rest of the world how it could work, for generations to come.”